Ivan Shaw on the evolution of Magazine Photography
Ivan Shaw is the Corporate Photography Director for Condé Nast Editions. He began his illustrious career at Vanity Fair in 1991 as a photo editor and has steadily climbed the ranks at Condé Nast for the past two decades. Now, he is an integral part of the team that is undertaking the publication’s plans to unveil the historical archive tucked away on the 15th floor of the Condé Nast Building—consisting of some eight million photographs and illustrations from Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Vogue, Architectural Digest and other magazines. This historical cache of fashion’s evolution is under the safekeeping of Shaw’s trained eye, who over 22 years of working in the Art Department at Condé Nast, is in his rightful place to influence the curation of these timeless photographs. In this interview, he shares with us his goals for this highly anticipated archival project as well as his thoughts and insights on the role of a photo editor.
“I think the thing that has shaped magazine photography the most is the digital revolution. The fact that you can now see the end result instantly has completely transformed the creative process, in some ways to the benefit of the industry but in other ways there has been a loss of spontaneity and the “happy accident” which historically has been the cause of some of the most inspired images.”
What was your childhood and upbringing like? Did you live in a very creative household?
I grew up primarily in Stamford, Connecticut. My mother was a dance and exercise instructor and my father was a newspaper publisher. It wasn’t necessarily a very creative environment, but we did go to museum shows and we had photography books in the house. My first photography book was the LIFE Book of Pictures and my second book was Ernst Haas’s In America. Both books profoundly shaped my view of photography and continue to influence me today.
How did you get into photo editing as a career? Please detail that journey for us.
My career in photography began while attending Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1986. My father owned the local bi-weekly business magazine, Business Worcester. I began working as an assistant in the darkroom and over the next four years became a staff photographer. After graduating from Clark, I was accepted into a Master of Arts/Photography program at NYU. While at NYU, I was able to secure an internship in the Vanity Fair photo department in early 1991. I was so enthralled with the experience, I realized I wanted to spend the rest of my career working in magazines. After my internship was over, I was hired back as an employee in July of 1992 and I have been with Condé Nast ever since.
Are there any influential figures in your life whose work inspires you?
The person who has inspired me most is the photographer Helmut Newton, both on a personal and professional level. Helmut is the most unique person that I have ever met.
What has the experience been like working with world-renown photographers? Any challenges?
Over my years at Vogue, (1994-2016) I have met and worked with some of the greatest photographers in the history of the medium including Irving Penn, Don McCullin, Bruce Weber, David Bailey, James Nachtwey, Herb Ritts, Arthur Elgort and many others. As with any great artist, they are extremely passionate about their work and of course this can, at moments, create tension.
As a photo editor, your relationship with photographers are crucial. When you were first starting out, were there any relationships that you fostered early on that ended up being pivotal for you in your career?
The relationships that were most critical to my success were with Susan White, the director of photography at Vanity Fair, who gave me my start at the magazine and then Charles Churchward, the design director of Vanity Fair and then Vogue. Charles brought me with him when he made the transition to Vogue.
How would you describe the evolution of magazine photography, as you witnessed it?
I think the thing that has shaped magazine photography the most is the digital revolution. The fact that you can now see the end result instantly has completely transformed the creative process, in some ways to the benefit of the industry but in other ways there has been a loss of spontaneity and the “happy accident” which historically has been the cause of some of the most inspired images.
“Best piece of advice—treat success and failure as the two impostors that they are. Worst piece of advice—I can’t remember since I tend to quickly forget bad ideas, be they mine or someone else’s.”
Condé Nast has huge plans to bring its archive of some eight million photographs and illustrations to life from Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Vogue, Architectural Digest and other magazines. What has it been like being a part of that team? What do you hope to achieve through this project?
It has been an extraordinary honor to be part of the team working on reimagining the scope of what can be done with our archives. It will continue to be an adventure and an education. Our goal is to bring the images in our archive to as wide an audience as possible. We want to tell the stories of Condé Nast to anyone who has an interest in the myriad topics that our magazines have covered for over one hundred and twenty five years.
How does an exhibition of iconic photographs come to life, like in the case of “Around that time: Horst at Home in Vogue”?
Around That Time began as a book project with Abrams books. I worked with Vogue editor Hamish Bowles to create the book. It was inspired by the classic 1968, Vogue’s Book of Houses, Gardens, People. The idea was to bring the original stories back to life but also update the book with all the work Horst did post-1968. He continued to shoot decorating stories for Vogue well into the 1980’s. Fortunately, at the time of the release of the book in October, 2016 both the SOCO gallery in Charlotte, North Carolina and Venus of Los Angeles, in Los Angeles, California, agreed to hold exhibitions and book signings.
You have achieved a high level of recognition and success because of the the excellence in your work. What are some personal attributes that you can identify that make for a great photo editor, and what do you do to foster them?
I think photo editors come in all shapes and sizes but the key ingredients for me are to have a passion for creating photography and a willingness to trust your instincts. I have also always felt that the moments of inspiration are the best part of the job and the willingness to act on a sudden intuition is the key to doing great work and enjoying your job.
What would you say is the best piece of advice anyone has given to you about pursuing this line of creative work? What was the worst?
Best piece of advice-treat success and failure as the two impostors that they are. Worst piece of advice—I can’t remember since I tend to quickly forget bad ideas, be they mine or someone else’s.
You take a lot of your time to give back to the photography community by meeting with students and many aspiring photographers—you’ve even curated exhibitions with some young talent, (i..e Alex Currie). What do you usually tell these students and what sort of impression do you hope to leave with them?
I love working with young photographers. A photographer once told me that the hardest decision a photographer has to make is, what to photograph? It’s the simplest question but the hardest answer. I advise young photographers to search for this answer by looking at yourself and the world you have created around—where you live, who you love etc. and that will help you find the pictures that you should be taking.
What do you see when you look back on your life? What do you foresee when you look ahead?
Looking back—amazed that I have had the opportunity to have worked with such brilliant talents at both Vogue and Vanity Fair. Looking forward—thrilled at what is ahead and entranced by the fact that we really don’t know yet where all this is going!